THE TENNESSEE CRIMINAL COURT SYSTEM
The procedures vary from county to county and some of these steps are combined in different ways depending on the particular jurisdiction, but here is some information that summarizes the typical steps which occur in the Nashville area Criminal Court System. The Nashville criminal attorneys at Widrig Law PLLC can discuss these steps more with you.
The steps from arrest to trial are:
STEP 1 — ARREST
To be lawful, a police officer must have probable cause to believe that a crime is being, or has been, committed. If the arrest is for a misdemeanor offense, the crime must normally have been committed in the officer’s presence or the police must have a warrant for your arrest.
An arrested person has the right to have a Preliminary Hearing within ten (10) days if they are in custody. These hearings are held on what is called the Jail Docket, which is held daily at the A. A. Birch Criminal Justice Building in Downtown Nashville with one of the General Sessions Judges presiding. A person charged with a misdemeanor has the option of requesting a preliminary hearing, or, with the consent of the State, resolving the case at the General Sessions level. The General Sessions Judges alternate sitting on the Jail and Bond Dockets. Jail Dockets for Misdemeanor and Felony cases are held daily and are in separate courts. A defendant who has made bond is scheduled for a hearing on the Bond Docket.
STEP 2 — GENERAL SESSIONS COURT
This court has jurisdiction to address both civil and criminal cases. In some counties, there is a court which handles only DUI cases. Criminal cases are resolved in this court by either a preliminary hearing, trial without a jury, or plea agreement. However, sessions courts do not have jurisdiction to conduct trials or accept plea agreements in felony cases. A preliminary hearing requires the state to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the offense for which he or she is charged. Probable cause means “probably guilty” or “more likely than not.”
STEP 3 — GRAND JURY
Grand Jury is a body of thirteen (13) citizens of the County who meet to hear evidence of criminal activity in order to determine if there is probable cause to require the defendant to stand trial in Criminal Court. Cases reach the Grand Jury from having been Bound Over by the General Sessions Court or by having the cases presented directly to them by the District Attorney General’s Office. If the Grand Jury determines there is probable cause to require the person to stand trial, they will return either a True Bill of Indictment or a Presentment. These terms are practically synonymous. The legal distinction is that an indictment is returned when a person has been bound over from General Sessions Court and a presentment is returned when the case is directly presented to the Grand Jury. If the Grand Jury does not find probable cause it will then return a No True Bill of Indictment. There are numerous occasions when a case will be dismissed at the General Sessions Court level and will be presented to the Grand Jury by the District Attorney General’s Office. Presentments result in a capias (which is an arrest order) being issued to take the person into custody. After the Grand Jury has returned an indictment or presentment the defendant will be brought into Criminal Court for arraignment.
STEP 4 — INDICTMENT
The formal charge against the defendant, the Indictment, is signed by the Grand Jury and must allege each element of the crime.
STEP 5 — ARRAIGNMENT
Arraignment is when the accused is informed of the charges against him or her. In response to arraignment, the accused is expected to enter a plea. Acceptable pleas vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but they generally include “guilty”, “not guilty”.
STEP 6 — CRIMINAL COURT
The highest trial court in Tennessee. In Criminal Court, a defendant is presumed innocent and has the right to require the State prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury of 12 people from the community. All defendants also have the right to confront their accuser, to compel the appearance of witnesses, and to remain silent if they choose not to testify. Defendants have the right to an attorney, and one will be appointed if the defendant cannot afford one. Prior to trial, defense counsel will have the opportunity to file motions – written documents requesting that the Court take certain action such as exclude evidence or require the State to disclose information. Should a person be convicted at trial, he or she has the right to appeal the conviction, the sentence, or both. If the defendant cannot afford to pay counsel for the appeal, one may be appointed to represent you.
Expungement of Criminal Record
A common question of many people faced with DUI or other related criminal charges is how long such a conviction will remain on the person’s criminal record. The answer is, if convicted of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or most any other criminal offense, the conviction will remain on your record forever. Only if under certain circumstances occur or if a charge has been dismissed may it be expunged or erased from your record.
Expungement simply means that any public record of the charge brought against you can be erased. However, the law enforcement authorities will always have a private record of the charge, but even that record should show that the case was dismissed. Once the charge is expunged, even though the District Attorney and law enforcement authorities have a record of it, the District Attorney cannot use the charge later on against you.